By James Raia
As Lance Armstrong rode to his fourth straight Tour de France title last year, the French sports newspaper L’Equipe dubbed the U.S. Postal Service team “Le Train Bleu.”
The moniker “The Blue Train” was not only fitting, it’s a recurring theme for the publication when it honors teams’ collective strengths.
Several years prior, the newspaper called the Italian squad, Saeco, then led by flamboyant and revered sprinter Mario Cipollini, “Le Train Rouge” or “The Red Train.”
In Saeco’s instance, the designation referred to the several teammates in their red Saeco (a coffee machine manufacturer) uniforms who rode to the front of the main field to provide drafting for Cipollini.
He was then the world’s best sprinter. As he approached the finish line, teammates would take turns at the front of the field pacing their leader before falling back into the pack.
For Armstrong’s team, the moniker was earned after repeated successful efforts by the blue-uniformed squad to pace the eventual race winner through windy flat and rolling stages and into the mountains.
The team, with rare exception, provided daily examples of one of cycling’s primary tenants: It’s a team sport.
Riders like Armstrong, who currently leads the race after 10 stages with a 21-second margin over Alexandre Vinokourov (Telekom) of Kazakhstan, can gain appreciable time in individual time trials.
But in most stages, the overall contenders conserve their efforts for strategic attacks in the mountains.
And unlike some sports, like triathlon and long-distance running, in which pacing is prohibited, team strategy and wisely using each rider to his strength is a key component for a team leader’s success.
This year, the U.S.P.S. team has eight riders returning from last year’s Tour de France team. Veteran Manuel Beltran of Spain was signed in recent months and he was selected over Benoit Joachim of Luxembourg.
It was also Beltran who showcased the team’s worst moment of the Tour to date.
Last Sunday as the main group approached the base of the final climb to L’Alpe d’Huez in stage 8, Beltran went to the front and led several teammates, including Armstrong, on the attack.
Beltran’s pace was too fast, a quick change of pace that didn’t go unnoticed by race observers.
“If it looked fast, it’s because it was; It was supersonic,” said Armstrong following his third-place finish in the stage and his assumption of the race’s leader jersey he’s worn since.
“It was good that the team rode well, but it wasn’t good at the same time. It was too fast. Manuel is new to the team and our system. He was nervous. But we’ll talk about it at dinner tonight, and it won’t happen again.”
Despite taking the race lead, Armstrong didn’t have his best day, and the team’s exceedingly quick attack at the base of L’Alpe d’Huez didn’t help.
All of the 22 teams in this year’s race began with nine riders. The squads usually have one or sometimes two cyclists designated as riders vying for the overall title. They’re usually skilled climbers and individual time trialists, the race in which the riders compete individually against the clock.
Each team is also comprised of designated rouleurs (work horses) domestiques (domestics) and climbers. For the the U.S.P.S. team, the work horses are the team’s biggest riders, George Hincapie, 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, and Pavel Padrnos of Czechoslovakia, 6-3, 180 pounds.
In flat stages, Hincapie and Padrnos will attempt to control the pace of the main field. During the first week of the Tour de France, Hincapie has also often finished just ahead or behind Armstrong, working as a protective buffer for his team captain.
The team’s workers are also responsible for falling back to a team car to retrieve water. And if Amstrong falters or falls or has a mechanical problems, teammates will fall back and then hope to bring their team leader back to the main field.
On climbs, the U.S.P.S. team usually utilizes Viatcheslav Ekimov of Russia and Floyd Landis of San Diego, Calif., to lead the team’s efforts as ascents begin.
As the climbs’ difficulties increase, Spaniards Jose Luis Rubiera and Roberto Heras, respectively, lead Armstrong against other team’s best.
Several times last year, Heras maintained Armstrong’s tempo. But strategically, Armstrong, like other team leaders, eventually have to advance alone.
Despite the U.S.P.S. error and Armstrong’s less-than-spectacular ride in stage eight, he praised the team.
“The team was very strong; it was magnificent,” he said. “As for me, I am not so sure.”
For team riders, individual rewards are rare at the Tour de France. But in other races throughout the year, Armstrong will return the favor and ride in support of teammates.
The team concept is also not forgotten financially.
Team’s earnings are collected and divided among all riders. In each of his four victories, Amstrong has also placed his winner’s share into the team pool and not taken any prize money.
But at least the U.S.P.S. team can still utilize team strategy.
The Fassa Bartolo squad of Italy has been depleted by injury and illness during the Tour de France. It has only three riders left, including Ivan Basso, currently in seventh place overall.
With four mountain stages, including two mountaintop finishes, remaining, Basso’s continued success will largely depend on his own singular efforts.
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